Smith Act

From Academic Kids

The Alien Registration Act or Smith Act (18 USC 2385) of 1940 made it a criminal offense for anyone to "knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing the Government of the United States or of any State by force or violence, or for anyone to organize any association which teaches, advises, or encourages such an overthrow, or for anyone to become a member of or to affiliate with any such association." It also required all non-citizen adult residents to register with the government; within four months 4,741,971 aliens had registered under the Acts provisions.

The Act is best known for its use against political organizations and figures, mostly on the left. Prosecutions continued until a series of United States Supreme Court decisions in 1957 threw out numerous convictions under the Smith Act as unconstitutional. The statute remains on the books, however.

The Act was proposed by Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia, a right wing legislator who supported the poll tax and was a leader of the "anti-labor" bloc of Congressmen. It was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.


Smith Act Trials

From 1941 to 1957, hundreds of communists were prosecuted under the Smith Act. The first trial, in 1941, focused on Trotskyists, the second trial in 1944 prosecuted alleged fascists and, beginning in 1949, leaders and members of the Communist Party USA were targetted.

1941: Minneapolis Sedition Trial - Socialism on Trial

The first Smith Act Trial occurred in 1941 with the prosecution in Minneapolis of leaders of the communist Socialist Workers Party in Minneapolis including James P. Cannon, Carl Skoglund, Farrell Dobbs, Grace Carlson, Harry DeBoer, Max Geldman, Albert Goldman (who also acted as the defendants' lawyer during the trial) and twelve other leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party as well as union activists involved with Local 544 of the Teamsters union in Minneapolis where the SWP had had a degree of influence since the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934. The SWP had advocated strikes and the continuation of labor union militancy during World War II under its Proletarian Military Policy and had some influence in Minneapolis due to its involvement with the Teamsters union. The Communist Party, which during the period in which the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was in force, had opposed American involvement in the war, had become an advocate of a no-strike pledge since the beginning of Nazi invasion of the USSR. An SWP member edited the Northwest Organizer which was the weekly newspaper of the Minneapolis Teamsters and the local remained a militant communist outpost in what was becoming an increasingly conservative national union under IBT leader Daniel J. Tobin.

On June 27 1941, the SWP's offices in Minneapolis and St. Paul were raided by the FBI which seized large quantities of communist literature. Several weeks later, twenty-eight people, either members of the SWP or Local 544 (or both) were indicted by a federal grand jury with violation of the 1861 Sedition Act, which had never before been used, and the 1940 Smith Act. The defendants were accused of plotting to overthrow the United States government. The trial began in Federal District Court in Minneapolis on October 27 1941 with evidence consisting mostly of public statements made by the SWP and its leaders as well as the Communist Manifesto and writings by Lenin and Trotsky. The evidence regarding insubordination of the armed forces consisted of oral testimony by two government witnesses to the effect that one or two defendants had told them that soldiers should be induced to “kick” about food and living conditions.

Five of the defendants were acquitted on both counts by direction of the judge due to lack of evidence at the conclusion of the prosecution's case. After 56 hours of deliberation, the jury found all of the twenty-three remaining defendants not guilty of count one of the indictment in which the state charged the accused with violating the 1861 statute by conspiring to overthrow the government by force. The government had attempted to use the Statute, which had originally been aimed against Southern secessionists, as a means of criminalising the avowal of any revolutionary doctrines. The jury found eighteen of the defendants guilty of count two of the indictment, which charged violation of the Smith Act specifically distributing written material designed to cause insubordination in the armed forces and charged that they had acted to "advocate, abet, advise and teach the duty, necessity, desirability and propriety of overthrowing the government by force and violence.”

On December 8 1941 sentences were handed down with twelve defendants receving 16-month terms and the remaining eleven being given 12 month terms. After failed appeals and the refusal of the United States Supreme Court to review the case, the convicted defendants began to serve their sentences on December 31 1943. The last prisoners were released in February 1945.

The Communist Party supported the trial and conviction of Trotskyists under the Smith Act, however, its leaders were to face similar scrutiny for treasonable acts under the Act following the war.

1944: Great Sedition Trial

The so-called Great Sedition Trial was a 1944 trial, in Washington, DC, of a group of some 30 individuals for sedition, in the form of violations of the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (known as the Smith Act). The defendants were alleged to be part of an international Nazi conspiracy. It is arguable that the trial was overtly political in nature; it was advocated by Franklin D. Roosevelt and is considered by some critics as tantamount to a show trial. The trial arose out of the strongly isolationist and/or allegedly pro-fascist stance of the heterogeneous group of defendants at the height of US involvement in World War II.

The trial began April 17, 1944, after a number of attempts by Federal authorities to frame charges robust enough to survive Grand Jury hearings, but was characterised by an inability on the part of prosecuters to prove specific intent to overthrow the government. Rather, it appears to have consisted of months of the prosecuter, O. John Rogge, reading the writings of the defendants to an increasingly weary jury. A mistrial was declared on November 29, 1944, some time after the death of the trial judge, ex-congressman Edward C. Eicher.

In part because of the abject failure of the trial, which ended "in tragedy and farce" [1] (, it is notable as one of a number in the US in which the dictates of freedom - especially of certain interpretations of freedom of speech - have been set against concepts of national security. The most obvious near comparison, from the immediate post-war era, was that of the congressional hearings arising out of Joseph McCarthy's anticommunist allegations.

Among the defendants in the 1944 trial were: George Sylvester Viereck, Lawrence Dennis, Elizabeth Dilling, Gerald Winrod and William Griffin.

Communist Party trials

Beginning in 1949 against over 140 leaders of the Communist Party USA including party leader Eugene Dennis. These trials occurred during the Cold War. Prosecutions continued until a string of decisions by the United States Supreme Court, which counted among its membership at the time Justices Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, and William O. Douglas threw out numerous convictions under the Smith Act, claiming they were unconstitutional.

Eleven leaders of the Communist Party were charged under the Smith Act in 1949. The accusation was that "they conspired . . . to organize as the Communist Party and willfully to advocate and teach the principles of Marxism-Leninism," which was equated with meaning "overthrowing and destroying the government of the United States by force and violence" at some unspecified future time. They were also accused of conspiring to "publish and circulate . . . books, articles, magazines, and newspapers advocating the principles of Marxism-Leninism." The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, Lenin's State and Revolution, and Stalin's Foundation of Leninism were introduced as evidence. Those charged in the initial indictment included Dennis, Gil Green, Henry Winston, John Gates who was the editor of the Daily Worker and Gus Hall who was then leader of the party in Ohio.

The trial at New York City's Foley Square courthouse took nine months to conduct. Among the eleven charged were Gil Green, a long-time Party leader; Eugene Dennis and Henry Winston, leaders of the national organization; John Gates, editor of the Daily Worker; and Gus Hall, leader of the Party in Ohio.

Ten defendants were given sentences of five years and fined $10,000, an eleventh defendant, Robert G. Thompson, was sentenced to three years.

All of the defense attorneys were cited for contempt of court and given to prison sentences including future Congressman George C. Crockett.

The convicted Communists appealed the verdicts but the Supreme Court upheld their convictions in 1951 by a vote of six to two with Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas diseenting. Black wrote that the government's indictment was "a virulent form of prior censorship of speech and press" and a violation of the First Amendment.

In 1951, twenty-three other leaders of the party were indicted including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union. By 1957 over 140 leaders and members of the Communist Party had been charged. The indictments ended in 1957 as the result of a series of Supreme Court decisions. Yates v. United States ruled unconstitutional the conviction of numerous party leaders in a ruling that distinguished between advocacy of an idea for incitement and the teaching of an idea as a concept. The Court's ruling by a margin of six to one in Watkins v. United States that defendants could use the First Amendment as a defense against "abuses of the legislative process."

While prosecutions under the Smith Act ceased, the statute remains on the books.

See also

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